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What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body

Melissa Malde, MaryJean Allen, Kurt-Alexander Zeller, Plural Publishing Inc, 232pp, Ill. (B/W), pbk, 8.5 x 11", ISBN10: 1-59756-324-2, ISBN13: 978-1-59756-324-6, $49.95. (First published in STATNews, January 2010)

Review by Patrick Gundry-White


This is the third publication to come out of the Body Mapping work established by Barbara Conable, devoted to the performing arts. Previous publications have been for musicians and dancers, and now here comes one for singers. It is a handsome book in a large format and its seven chapters are shared among three authors. Allen introduces Body Mapping and general anatomy in Chapters 1 and 2. Malde deals with breathing, Creating a Singing Sound and Resonating the Voice in chapters 3-5. The last two chapters, Singing as Communication and Physical Expression for Singers are by Zeller.

Conable also book-ends the whole publication with an introduction and a fascinating and perceptive essay on performance anxiety in an appendix. Her pithy introduction sets out the ground the book intends to cover, painting a rather disturbing portrait of the plight of singers and their teachers.

Even before Chapter 1 began, though, under the heading How to Use this Book, my breath was taken away at the end of Maldeís fourth paragraph: "Ö you may run into information that is so strange to you that you think it must be wrong. Trust us. This means you have work to do." This patronising statement might have led me to close the book immediately if I hadnít agreed to write a review of it.

The main premise of this book is that by gaining a more accurate mental map of the structures of the body you can improve the functioning of those structures and hence improve your singing. Consequently there is a lot of anatomy, with nearly 100 diagrams, 74 of them by David Gorman (from The Body Moveable 4th ed, 2002 etc. - we are told this underneath every single one of them with monotonous regularity -was there no other way of acknowledging his contribution?). The majority of the rest of them are by Conable.

With one exception I have no issue with the diagrams, but I do question the assertion on page 27 that the head balances centrally on top of the spine. I cannot agree with this or the following pageís diagram which tries to show that the occipital condyles lie equidistant between the front and back of the skull. I have painstakingly measured the two human skulls in my possession and every available example and diagram I can find, and the argument just does not hold water. The centre of gravity of the head is actually in front of the atlanto-occipital joint, giving it the dynamism which makes the Ďhead forwards and upí direction such a powerful and potent tool for change and growth.

In Chapter 3, I cheered when Malde told about the workings of the diaphragm, and that the air enters the middle of the lungs (not from the bottom up), though the action of the internal intercostals was fudged (they are active in inspiration). On page 65 she states "The neck muscles play no role in breathing for singing. Period." What about the scalenes?

Chapter 4 does an admirable job of reducing the mind-boggling complexities of the workings of the larynx into 30 pages.

I found the last two chapters of Kurt-Alexander Zellerís the most compelling on many levels: warm, informative, articulate, displaying a wealth of experience and respecting his reader - I could read his prose all day long.

There is only one overt reference to the Alexander Technique and that is in MaryJean Allenís acknowledgement, but its influence is to be found throughout.

"This book is designed to help singers, voice teachers, choral conductors and vocal coaches". So it says on page 1. I pretty much do all those things, and it does have some useful things in it which I will turn to again and again - in fact I already have. Inspiring and maddening by turns, does this book make me sing better? Iím working on it.

© Patrick Gundry-White 2010



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